New Brunswick is at the centre of a debate on nuclear weapons proliferation

Translation of an original French article by Michel Corriveau, Ici Nouveau-Brunswick, Radio Canada

October 27, 2021

There are about a dozen modular nuclear reactor projects in Canada. But Moltex’s project in New Brunswick will extract plutonium from nuclear waste, a radioactive metal that is also used to make weapons.

International and national experts are concerned about the possible consequences of Moltex’s modular reactor project. The fuel used by Moltex will be plutonium extracted from nuclear waste at the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant in New Brunswick. This radioactive metal can also be used to make bombs.

“I am very concerned that the Government of Canada has funded a Canadian company, Moltex, to develop a project that will challenge Canada’s policy on nuclear weapons proliferation,” said University of New Brunswick professor Susan O’Donnell.

O’Donnell, who worked for 13 years at the National Research Council of Canada as a technology adoption expert, questions New Brunswick’s role in the development of these technologies.

Experts fear that rogue nations or terrorist organizations could get their hands on the technology to extract plutonium, or on the plutonium itself.

A former U.S. White House national security adviser, Frank N. von Hippel, who is also a physicist and professor at the prestigious Princeton University in New Jersey, has been working on this issue for 45 years.

He believes that plutonium production is far too risky because of the potential for military use. Over the years, there have been many analyses that have shown that in fact it doesn’t make economic or environmental sense to separate plutonium for civilian purposes, and of course it doesn’t make sense to separate it for military purposes either,” he explains.

Nine American scientists have written two letters to the Canadian government. They denounce Ottawa’s $50.5 million support for Moltex Energy because they believe that if the project goes ahead, Canada would be breaking its policy of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and that could have important international consequences.

The controversy revolves around plutonium, a radioactive metal, which is produced during nuclear fission in a reactor like Point Lepreau. Plutonium can be extracted from nuclear waste through pyro-processing, a technology that Moltex intends to use.

The cause for concern: a bomb in India

As early as 1956, Canada gave a research reactor called CIRUS to India. India subsequently purchased two power reactors from Canada, in 1963 and 1966. India used the plutonium extracted from the nuclear waste of the research reactor to secretly build an atomic bomb.

To everyone’s surprise, in 1974, India exploded its first atomic bomb in the Rajasthan desert. South Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan and Argentina, which had purchased Canadian reactors, were trying to do the same.

These events led the United States and Britain, with Canadian participation, to establish the London Club, which became the Nuclear Suppliers Group, to better control the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Given the risk of proliferation, in 1977 U.S. President Jimmy Carter called for the end of funding for a US reactor project that would have used plutonium as fuel. “I originally became involved as a scientific advisor under US President Jimmy Carter, and the Carter administration decided that in fact plutonium separation did not make sense for the United States. We stopped it; and we appealed to other countries to do the same,” recalls former advisor Frank N. von Hippel.

Congress ended funding for the plutonium extraction project in 1983. To this day, the issue has been the subject of much tug-of-war in the United States, where the research has continued. “Some of us have sent a similar letter [to the one sent to Ottawa] to the Biden administration and the Department of Energy, which is currently promoting similar programs,” says Frank N. von Hippel.

Civilian plutonium and nuclear weapons

Plutonium for military purposes, to make bombs, is not produced in the same manner as plutonium for civilian purposes (to generate electricity, for example). And military plutonium is of a different composition than civilian plutonium.

However, while so-called civilian plutonium is not ideal for military use, it can still be used to make nuclear bombs. Nevertheless, the nuclear industry and independent scientists do not agree on this aspect.

A group of power generation and distribution companies, including NB Power, is supporting several modular nuclear reactor projects, including the Moltex project in New Brunswick.

The group claims that its plutonium-based fuel extraction methods are more proliferation-resistant than processes used more widely around the world, as stated in Feasibility of Small Modular Reactors, an April 2021 report by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Bruce Power, NB Power and SaskPower. However, the report does not demonstrate how this would be the case. Only one sentence in the entire document touches on this important issue.

Moltex asserts that the plutonium it intends to produce could not be used for military purposes, because the plutonium produced in Saint John, New Brunswick, would not be pure. The main result of the WATSS process [Moltex’s pyro-processing technology] is an impure extraction, a mixture of minor actinides [including plutonium],” the company stated in a written reply.

But this argument has already been rejected by experts on more than one occasion.

In 2009, a team of experts from major U.S. national laboratories concluded that even non-pure plutonium [from pyro-processing] can be used to make nuclear weapons.

According to these experts, it would only take a few days or weeks for this plutonium to be used for military purposes. The plutonium would be much more accessible after it has been separated from the main radioactivity in the spent fuel; it would be easy to separate the plutonium even in a glove box. “You wouldn’t need a reprocessing plant – and many studies have come to this conclusion,” argues Frank N. von Hippel.

Plutonium under close surveillance

The risk with plutonium and the technology for its extraction is that it may fall into the hands of militaristic regimes or terrorist groups. For this reason, countries with plutonium stocks keep them under close surveillance. “The plutonium that has been produced in France, England and Japan is very heavily guarded; it’s in very, very secure facilities, and it’s under – let’s call it military-grade security”, says Professor Susan O’Donnell.

The question of security around possible Canadian production is therefore raised, but there is more. Moltex wants to sell its technology – if it can develop it – to other countries. “What is the plan to verify or validate the security situation in the countries they propose to export to?” asks O’Donnell.

Only a handful of countries such as France, England, Russia and Japan have plutonium for civilian use. My colleagues and I have been trying to persuade these countries to stop separating plutonium; it is possible that Japan … will change its policy and decide that it doesn’t make sense,” says Frank N. von Hippel.

Except that South Korea uses the example of Japan to justify its willingness to begin plutonium production. If Canada were to produce plutonium as well, it would give even more weight to South Korea’s claims,” said the former White House adviser. Frank N. von Hippel is concerned that South Korea may ultimately want to acquire nuclear weapons.

We’ve had this discussion with South Korea, for example, where more than half the population thinks that if South Korea gets a nuclear weapon, it’s a deterrent against North Korea,” he says.

A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in August 2021 said North Korea had resumed producing plutonium for military purposes and had significantly expanded its nuclear arsenal over the past 20 years.

The government is silent on the issue

Both the Liberal Party of Canada and the Conservative Party of Canada support the development of modular nuclear reactor projects, including the Moltex project, which involves the extraction of plutonium from nuclear waste. However, neither party responded to our requests for interviews on this issue during the last election campaign.

We were also unable to obtain an interview with the federal government to answer the many questions raised by the independent scientists.

A media relations manager at the federal Department of Natural Resources provided a brief e-mail message stating that the Government of Canada is reviewing the science and technology of reprocessing, as well as the benefits and risks associated with this activity, in order to guide any future policy on this issue.

On the question of the use of plutonium for military purposes, she added that nuclear technology in Canada is – and will continue to be – used for peaceful purposes only.

None of the independent scientists who have raised concerns question this. The risk, they say, is not that Canada will engage in nuclear weapons production; rather, it is the use that other countries or organizations might make of this technology and the message that Canada sends to the international community.

New Brunswick’s Minister of Natural Resources and Energy Development, Mike Holland, was the only politician who agreed to answer our questions about the proliferation risk.

According to Mike Holland, experience elsewhere in the world has shown that pyro-processing cannot be used to make weapons-grade plutonium; a view not shared by all scientists.

Why New Brunswick?

The Moltex project is being developed in New Brunswick for several reasons. First and foremost, there is Point Lepreau, since Moltex will need the waste from this nuclear plant.

There is also a clear political will to move forward with this type of technology. The provincial government has invested several million dollars to allow two companies to continue their development in the province.

Finally, the industry believes that the New Brunswick population is quite supportive of nuclear power. New Brunswick is an attractive place to be because it has a population that generally supports nuclear power,” says the Feasibility of Small Modular Reactor report.

Except that little information has leaked out about the exact nature of the Moltex project, in particular, and the possible consequences.

Many, including Frank N. von Hippel and Susan O’Donnell, are calling on the government to conduct an independent assessment of the Moltex project.

The New Brunswick government has no intention of asking for an independent study. It’s a low-grade plutonium product, and of course I’m not a scientist…but I take the information that comes from the regulators,” said Holland, referring to the federal Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

For its part, the Canadian government has not responded to this request from the scientists, and in the terse response we received from the communications department, there is no mention of any independent study.

Author: CRED-NB

Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick